On the Thinginess of Things

I’ve been thinking about the word “reality.” It derives from the Latin word res, which simply means “thing.” (The word republic, for instance, comes from res + publica—the thing of the people). Etymologically speaking, reality means something like “thinginess.” A real thing is a thingish thing (which suggests that the phrase “real thing” is redundant).

What, then, is a thing? I don’t quite know what to say to that, except that I know a thing when I see one, and so do you. You can look up thing in the dictionary, but I don’t think you’ll find it very helpful.

In the absence of a good definition of a thing, allow me to highlight one important facet of thinginess: A thing must exist outside the human mind (and outside of language) in order to qualify as a thing. Consider this utterance: “Pumpkin-spice bacon frappuccino donut—is that even a thing?” The speaker is asking, “Does this concoction exist in the physical world where you and I live, or is it just a string of words, or a figment of your imagination?”

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“These things were here, and but the beholder wanting…”

One autumn day, after fishing in the Elwy River, Gerard Manley Hopkins walked home past the gathered sheaves (stooks, as he called them) beneath a sky of high, shifting clouds. The experience engendered “half an hour of extreme enthusiasm” that found expression in a sonnet called “Hurrahing in Harvest.” I love the first stanza:

Summer ends now; now, barbarous in beauty, the stooks rise
Around; up above, what wind-walks! what lovely behaviour
Of silk-sack clouds! has wilder, wilful-wavier
Meal-drift moulded ever and melted across skies?

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Other People’s Rodents

A group of Australian exchange students came to my sons’ school a while back. One of the most remarkable things I remember from their visit was their fascination with American squirrels. On more than one occasion, Australians were late for class because they were absorbed in watching gray squirrels scamper and cavort around campus. Bear in mind, these young men had kangaroos back home. And koala bears. And platypuses. But they didn’t have squirrels. So squirrels were a marvel to them.

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Seeing What You See: On Imagery

You have probably heard me talk about the importance of inviting a reader into a scene–presenting information to your reader as closely as possible to the way she would receive information in real life. In real life, we collect information via our five senses, and then our minds go to work on that information to make judgments, have ideas, feel feelings, reach conclusions, etc. I wrote about this idea at length in an earlier issue of The Habit called The Eye Is an Organ of Judgment.

Imagery is the most basic and most important tool for writing that invites a reader into a scene rather than telling the reader what to think. Imagery is simply language that appeals to the five senses by depicting concrete facts.

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On the Impracticality of Beauty

A cynic remarked that last week’s fire at Notre Dame has turned out to be an excellent excuse for social media users to post pictures of their vacations in Paris. A less cynical interpretation is that the fire at Notre Dame prompted social media users to memorialize an encounter with a work of art and beauty that reminded them that they were living in a bigger story than they typically thought.

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Mystery and Manners

“There are two qualities that make fiction,” wrote Flannery O’Connor. “One is the sense of mystery and the other is the sense of manners.” Since yesterday was Flannery O’Connor’s birthday (she would have been ninety-four), I thought this would be a good week to think about mystery and manners.

Mystery and Manners, as you may know, is the title of a collection of O’Connor’s “occasional prose.” It contains some of the most insightful writing about writing that you can ever hope to read. I commend it to you.

But what does O’Connor mean by those terms “mystery” and “manners”? The gist is that the fiction writer is always looking to approach the deepest mysteries through the surfaces of things. A storyteller may be interested in big, abstract ideas about ultimate meaning—love, hatred, sin, judgment, grace, etc.—but those big ideas are not the raw material of a story. The raw materials of a story are found in manners, not mystery. Manners are what we see with our eyeballs when we look out at the world of human interaction. “You get the manners from the texture of existence that surrounds you,” writes O’Connor.

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Five Lessons on Writing from Jerry Seinfeld

This NY Times video of Jerry Seinfeld explaining his joke-writing process has been floating around the Internet for years, so you may have seen it already. But it’s well worth revisiting, especially on Fat Tuesday, a day devoted to jollity.

Watching this (for the umpteenth time), I’m struck by how many of Seinfeld’s lessons for joke-writing apply to writing of all kinds. Here are a few: 

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Painting the Alligator Green

In the book club I’m running over at Field Notes for Writers, the topic of childhood creativity came up. When you put crayons and a piece of paper in front of a small child, she knows exactly what to do with them. She doesn’t get artist’s block. She doesn’t perseverate over whether or she has enough skill or whether she’s talented or whether she has earned the right to call herself an artist. She just puts crayon to paper and gets busy.

As we get older, almost all of us lose most of that creative freedom. We grow in self-consciousness, we learn self-doubt, and our exuberance in the mere act of making dissolves as we start to compare, as we are subjected to criticism.

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Facts and Non-Fiction

A former online student wrote with a question about facts and non-fiction:

When I write, I make it a serious aim to be truthful and honest. I don’t want to force meaning into something, but bring out what’s already there, as you taught me years ago. But in order to tell something in an interesting and compelling way, sometimes you have to bring it together in an artful way that might not be 100 percent accurate. The heart of the truth is preserved—sometimes even better than it would be if you confused the issue with useless (to the reader) information … So as long as I’m concerned for the truth and kindness toward everyone I write about, is it okay to not be totally accurate? 

This writer had written up a non-fiction account of an event involving a few friends. When she showed it to one of the friends who had been there, the friend was bothered by the fact that she had telescoped several hours’ worth of events into a short scene and changed a few other details. The writer, on the other hand, was bothered by the fact that her friend was bothered.

So, how much are you “allowed” to monkey with the facts of a piece that purports to be non-fiction? At what point have you crossed the threshold from non-fiction into fiction—or into lying? I get this kind of question relatively often.

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Talk to Strangers: Everybody Has a Story

In a recent episode of the Radiolab podcast, producer Latif Nasser shares some of his techniques for finding stories to research and write about. The episode grows from this article, in which Nasser offers even more techniques, which range from setting Google alerts to rummaging around in library collections of personal papers and oral histories to repeatedly clicking the “random article” button on Wikipedia. 

I won’t list all of Nasser’s techniques, since you can click over to the article or podcast more easily than I can summarize them. His techniques are helpful, and I commend them to you. The most helpful thing about Nasser’s remarks, however, is his approach to story-finding almost as a lifestyle, or perhaps a philosophy. 

We all need to be in the habit of noticing, of keeping our eyes open to the marvels that surround us every minute of every day.

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